7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Digging up Character Names


Living in old New England I've long been fascinated wandering through cemeteries. The peculiar to our times names always intrigue me, so strange to the modern ear: Ardacton, Tryphena, Fravel, Clymenia, Sturgeon (isn't that a fish?). Others seem to be timeless, beautiful, honorable: Sumner, Caleb, Hannah. Many archaic names are surnames that were passed along as given/Christian names. And yes, these archaic names do have a place in our colonial fiction, and other period fiction.

Character name selection is a very fun part of writing for me as I develop the role. Most will agree that the name needs to fit the personality, suit the story, and be realistic to the setting (locale and time period). But where do we find these names? As I said, walking among the dead is one option, but you needn't rush off to an old east coast cemetery in person as there are many cemetery records now transcribed online.

In fact, cemetery, census, birth, marriage, military records are preserved by historical societies and often published online on their websites, on Google Books, and via genealogical websites. These vital records are those that I frequent most when looking for interesting names. The advantage of accessing these names are that you can go to the location of your novel and find names that were actually used during a given time frame.  Grave Matter that has recorded countless epitaphs of my own ancestors. The way I would use a site like this for name ideas is go find the location and time period, say 18th century Salisbury, MA, where I'll find the Old Colonial Burial Ground.  Say I need names found in Connecticut, The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records: Suffield 1674-1850 should give me some ideas. This seems like it might be time consuming, but you can always tuck some of the great names you find away in a file (Evernote works great!). In American Marriages before 1699 you'll find not only a primer on the original colonies, but an extraordinary list of names. Looking for a name for a soldier who might enlist in the American Revolution? The Colonial Ancestors is one such website that provides names of those who took the oath of allegiance at Valley Forge.  A Google Books resource like History of Boothbay, Southport and Boothbay Harbor, Maine. 1623-1905 is another place to find names targeting a specific communtiy during a specified time period as is Boston Birth Records from A.D. 1700 to A.D. 1800. Doing some internet searches or a trip to your an area library will get you going in the right direction.

I'm sure many of you have labored over your characters names almost as much as choosing a name of a new child or a new family pet. Baby names books and websites are also a fabulous place to harvest names for our characters when considering name meanings and origins. I've included a list of links below to help you find some of these including names popular during colonial times. If your character is an immigrant to America or his family was you may want to check name trends in their land of origin to sound authentic. There are also customs associated with naming patterns that may be important to your story as found on this article on Naming Practices. The 18th century tradition follows as such although this could be confusing depending on your queue of characters: First daughter after mother's mother, second daughter after father's mother, third daughter after mother. First son after father's father, second son after mother's father, third son after father. For more information about using historic naming patterns see this excellent article: Name Your Historical Fiction Characters Using Real Historic Conventions.

Well, it all may sound like overkill just to find a few decent names, but I think authors and readers alike will agree that the name of characters are vitally important. It's also important when incorporating the uncommon names to be sensitive to the reader's expectations. Elvira? Madonna? O.J.? Eh, we may want to reconsider and make use of something with a less cliche ring to it. But then cliche sometimes works when applied to your sweet protagonist Patience, your brooding hero Gideon, dangerous antagonist Absolom, the bitter cousin Mehitable, the eccentric privateer Fortunatus. You get the picture, your readers will too. What a fun way to exercise our creativity and originality when naming our dashing captain of the militia or our lovely and spirited protagonist. I'm sure there are many memorable names that come to mind from the novels you have read.  Feel free to share some of your favorites when you comment.

Now for a little more fun, name the five characters in this picture and include in your comment. Or dare you not cast your precious names around so frivolously?

18th century Think Baby Names: Male
18th century Think Baby Names: Girls
Colonial Names for Girls
Colonial Names for Boys
Hot Baby Names for1710
18th century names
Behind the Name
Behind the Name: Surnames
Name Voyager


  1. The two to either side are Mehitabel and Elias Coke. (And don't pinch those names!! :> )

  2. Love those name, Mike. I'll try to restrain myself, I always did like that name Mehitabel.

  3. This is SO fun! I love old strange names. This will be good for me to use too for naming paintings. I like to use names that are old fashioned and a bit mysterious. I've done a bit of ancestor research and have loved the names I've found-- in my blood there is a Mahala and a Mary Melinda. They just sound like interesting women!!~ Going to check out these lists...

  4. Carla, Oh, love all this name talk! I'm trying to confirm name for book 2 in my series and it's harder than I imagined. Roxanna was the name of my great-grandmother so I used that. Lael's last name was the maiden name of another great. I think the archaic names are so wonderful and memorable, maybe because they've fallen out of use. Great post:)

  5. What great information. I'm copying and keeping this for future reference! Love these posts. Thanks:)
    Have a wonderful day!

  6. Heather, I so agree. Old names are strange, and for that reason more appealing. Glad to hear info will come in handy for your paintings, and I know you'll find a lot of your fans here! Family trees are a great place to find interesting, uncommon names for sure.

  7. Kristen, I'm glad you find this info helpful. Glad to hear you are keeping it for future use! I do hope it comes in handy.

  8. Laura, you do have interesting names for your characters for certain. I just read that tidbit about Roxanna being your grandmother's name over at your RT interview (great interview, by the way). Like you, I love taking a look at my family history to find some names authentic to the period, with a nod of honor to our ancestors. I know you'll have wonderful names in your next series, though I understand how hard it is to find that name that fits just so. I hope these resources help.

  9. Yes, naming characters is a one of the great joys and challenges of writing historical fiction. I often draw on my maternal family tree, which dates back to the late 1600s and covers family living in most of the areas I write about.

    I didn't know that about the naming patterns in families, but just from having poured over so many family trees, I've seen and absorbed knowledge of that pattern without ever consciously thinking it through, often wondering why the eldest son wasn't named after his father, but a younger son was. Now I know!

    And thanks for these wonderful links! They look very helpful.

  10. Lori, those family trees are a treasure and end up being very helpful to historical writers. It's great that you have that resource available going back so far, as do I. I can't help but think that everyone of those ancestors have a story to be told. Oh, dear. I find the naming patterns interesting, neat that you picked up on that.

  11. So interesting how different and how the smae times were! Then they had interesting names that weren't very common and today we have ones that sound strange to ours as well! I have a Gotlieb in the family <3

  12. Faye, that is certainly an unusual name. I think names have been important throughout the centuries. And although sometimes we find an antiquated unique name that we fall in love with, some are so unpleasant to our contemporary ears, though they must have had the opposite affect in years gone by.

  13. Thanks so much for the post, Carla--what a treasure trove of resources! I'm a historical writer and I am addicted to genealogy, so I appreciate the help.

    My Revolutionary-war-era ancestors included a string of Obadiahs, Ezekiels, and Jeriels.

    For character name inspiration, I looked at baptismal records from the era and locale of my Scottish hero, and just about every one of those baby boys was named Archibald, Donald, or John. Alas. I went with something else.

  14. Great article Carla. Shadrach is one of my ancestor's names and I love that. It is spelled a bunch of different ways, too, as they did at that time (1600's) Sydrack, etc. Thanks for all the links, too!

  15. Great post. Thank you for sharing.
    I came across the name Anella through research years ago. I don't remember where I found it or really what it means. I loved and it stuck. The name much like my character is unique.
    The remaining characters all have traditional 18th Century names. Hannah being the most popular name I came across.

  16. What are your thoughts on using a name that has changed genders? Would you have a problem with a hero named "Loren"?

  17. Teresa, I love the name, Anella.

    And Cathy, Loren always makes me think of Bonanza's Loren Green. I think if you establish the hero's masculine qualities almost any name will do, as long as it is appropriate to the setting.

    Thanks, Carrie. Shadrach, how cool! And that always confounds me that they were inconsistent with spelling back in the day. Makes for interesting variations though.

  18. Hi Suzanne, I have that same issue in my Scottish heritage...many Johns there. But Jeriel. Never heard of that. You should think about using that unique name in one of your historical novels.


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